Book review: Canoe trip down Hudson yields reflections on life

Ever since Thoreau went to Walden Pond, writers having been using local encounters with nature as a

Ever since Thoreau went to Walden Pond, writers having been using local encounters with nature as a way to make sense of the larger world.

In “Drifting,” Mike Freeman uses the local narrative to make sense of the Hudson, his life and the perils and progress of modern life generally.

The basis of the book is a two-week solo canoe trip on the Hudson that Freeman took in 2009. He started in the river’s headwaters, at Henderson Lake in the High Peaks, and paddled south, all the way to the northern end of Manhattan.

Relearning country

His main objective is to relate how the trip helped him “relearn my country.” He was a native New Englander who had lived in Alaska, pursuing a career in wildlife research.

“Drifting” is also part autobiography. Just as the lower Hudson mixes salt and fresh water, Freeman mixes the account of his trip with vignettes from his life. He was in the Northeast, relearning the country, because of love.

‘Drifting: Two Weeks on the Hudson’

Author: Mike Freeman

Published by: SUNY Press, 224 pages

How much: $24.95

On a visit home, he met Karen, his future wife, and was smitten. When she became pregnant, he returned from Alaska, in 2008. So, as an environmentalist, husband, new parent and social observer, this trip offered many facts and emotions to mull over.

While on the water, Freeman realized that the Hudson is really three rivers.

The first segment, from Henderson Lake south to Corinth in Saratoga County, is wild and fast-flowing. From Corinth to Troy, the river is more managed, with more than a dozen dams, and an industrial footprint. From the Troy Lock and Dam south to the Atlantic, the river is wide and tidal.

Viewing the Hudson in three parts provides an excellent way to organize the observations and insights gathered over hundreds of miles of travel. The chapters are grouped into three parts, corresponding to the river segments.

I am not an experienced canoeist, but it appears Freeman traveled rather than luxuriated. He camped out for most of the trip on islands and river banks, rather than staying in hotels.

Except for some portages, he paddled nearly every mile, even capsizing in the Hudson Gorge on the upper river.

Every since Henry Hudson arrived 400 years ago, people have been writing about the river bearing his name. The writing and observations in “Drifting,’ even though it is a first book, are frequently excellent.

Freeman is good at the surprising detail or pithy phrase. He discloses that Stanley found Livingstone in remote Africa an entire year before Verplanck Colvin found Lake Tear of the Clouds, the source of the Hudson.

He ends a sentence listing some of the great river writings and songs by saying, “rivers feed American culture as much as they water the land.”

The book incorporates a wide range of writers, thinkers and art. In some chapters, Freeman spends a lot of time with environmentalists Bill McKibben or Fran Dunwell. But a few pages later, he is ruminating on “Doctor Strangelove” or “Blazing Saddles.”

Each chapter is about his immediate experiences on the river and what these say about the wider world. In a chapter on the wildness of the river, Freeman starts discussing the recovery of native fish and wildlife in the region.

Enlarging discussion

Then, he enlarges the discussion to wildlife recovery elsewhere in the United State — or the world.

By the book’s end, the digressions become less effective. For example, in considering religion and the environment, Freeman talks to environmentalists, but I do not recall him talking to any religious figures.

Although I am not particularly religious, I was irritated that Freeman either did not interview religious people and that he allowed the environmental interviews to overpower other voices and thoughts.

This is a strong book. But it could have used another edit or more reflection to have been a great book. Nevertheless, lots of good things are going on and it’s a worthwhile read for people interested in nature or New York.

Categories: Life and Arts

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